Robert Lansberry Still Asking Why He Can 't Get Mail
Out of necessity, he sleeps in the nude. If he didn't, his ragged clothes would become sweat-soaked and the dampness combined with the cold night air under the Second Avenue ramp from tbe Parkway East would turn his flesh to the consistency of a popsicle.
The soft earth under the ramp is Robert R. Lansberry's home. It is here that he unwraps his grimy 1/2-pound sleeping bag, undresses and crawls inside.
Once the worn plastic liner he is never without is pulled up over the sleeping bag to ward off the dampness, he is as secure as an orchid in a greenhouse.
Lansberry lies there under the ramp in his little Insulated world of plastic and kapok, caring nothing about the whoosh of traffic overhead and the crazy kind of world it represents. He would change things if he could. He falls asleep with the quiet reassurance that at least he is trying...
Robert R. Lansberry was born in Pittsburgh and has lived here all his Iife. He graduated from the Pennsylvania State University with a degree in business administration and put his education to work almost immediately.
Success came easily. He was a goed businessmanand within a fewyearsbe had the world by the tail.
By 1970, Lansberry said, he owned two grocery stores - Lansberry's General Store in Plum Borough and the Manor Village Market in Westmoreland County. He also owned a number of rental apartments in Highland Park and was part owner of the Greater Pittsburgh Swim Club in Penn Hills.
All in all, Lansberry figures he was worth about $250,000 when he just plain dropped out. That was In 1975...
A lot of people think he's crazy. Most of them snicker as he parades through Market Square or suns himseIf in Gateway Center, his thin frame sandwiched between two homemade signs protesting the allegation that he can't get mail.
"Not yet! I'm hangin' in there," is Lansberry's stock answer. It happens to him hundreds of times a day. He is happy because it means recognition. He needs recognition.
"Why Can't Lansberry Get Mail?" It has become a part of Downtown Pittsburgh's pop culture. He plasters his question on telephone poles and bllboards and places it in the classified ads of newspapers.
For three beautiful days, he even managed to display his protest on a 60-foot vinyl banner that popped and crackled In the wind gusts over Grant Street.
"Three goddamn days." he said. "And not one piece of mail. Now you know from that that something has got to be wrong!"
Lansberry is sitting on a Market Square park bench enjoying a banana and a half pint of milk. He is careful to brush away little bits of banana that cling to his drooping moustache and scraggly beard.
The sandwich board sign and the sleeping bag rolled inside the plastic liner - Robert R Lansberry's only earthly possessions with the exception of the clothes he is wearing - are leaning against the park bench. Even a protester needs an occasional break.
Sure, Lansberry says, he would be glad to tell his story. More than glad. Delighted. What do you want to know?
Lansberry will be 49 years old tomorrow. He lives under the Second Avenue ramp because it is a lot more comfortable than the side of Mount Washington near the Fort Pitt Tunnel where he spent Iast winter. Sleeping outside in the cold doesn't bother him; he has a low rate of metabolism.
The mail, or rather not getting mail, is only part of It. He said he currently has, actions pending against the federal government, all of them In the fields of consumer advocacy or human rights.
He became a consumer advocate in 1971 when he grew disgusted with the milk commission (now the state Milk Marketing Board), banks and the public utilities - In that order. He started writing letters of protest to governmental agencies at all levels, challenging everything from the price of milk to the Imprisonment of a Pittsburgh police officer who killed his wife while under a CIA mind control study. That's what Lansberry says.
Lansberry didn't realize he wasn't getting mail until he found later that money being sent to him by sympathizers wasn't getting through.
"It's not that I can't get mail; I can't get meaningful mail."
Lansberry produced a certified letter recently sent to him by the U.S. District Court informing him that one of his many complaints - namely, the one about not getting mail - had been dismissed by a magistrate.
"Stuff like this gets through," he said "If it's junk or obscene, they let It go through I've had about 20 letters in the last four years."
In 1974, Lansberry's wife tried to confine him to a mental institution. That, be said, caused him to turn his back on her, their three children and a net worth of about $250,000.
He couldn't get a job anywhere, he said, and managed to collect weIfare for a few months until he was told be wasn't eligible. He now gets $160 a month In Social Security payments. He doesn't know why he is eligible for one but not the other. It is just another governmental enigma to him.
Lansberry made his public protesting debut at the Three Rivers Arts Festival last summer when be flashed his sandwich board message before an estimated 250,000 people.
It resulted in no mail.
More recently, he spent 10 precious dollars to duplicate 220 "Why Can't Lansberry Get Mail" posters which be pasted to poles all over the Downtown area.
Still, no mail.
His most recent assault on the government was made over the weekend when he paid $41 for a round-trip bus ticket to Washington. He picketed the White House for a full day, was photographed by a delegation of Soviets and photographed and given a box lunch by a delegation of Japanese.
Again, no mail.
But several White House guards advised him to continue to picket the Whte House because "nobody pays any attention to you anywhere else in the country".
Lansberry's presence on the streets over the past year has earned him a lot of friends, albeit no mail. He gets a few bucks here and there and hoards them for a grand assault on the White House that will cost him, he figures, between $400 and $500.
He is always welcome at No. 1 police station where he takes an occasional shower and can pick up a cup of coffee. He lunches at the Salvation Army or the St. Mary's bread line on the Boulevard of the Allies (always two bologna sandwiches, with lettuce and a cup of coffee) and eats dinner at a First Avenue restaurant where he splurges $1.28 on a bowl of thick soup, an order of bread and a cup of coffee.
Lansberry says he doesn't miss the big house in which he once lived and is quite comfortable under the Second Avenue ramp where he can write letters of protest and some occasional poetry.
"I never get disgusted or discouraged," he said "And I don't think most people think I'm crazy. I'll keep it up until I get mail - even if it takes forever".